As the project extranet nears extinction, alternatives, such as e-mail, peer-to-peer computing and messaging are all viable alternatives, says Alec Milton.
Within five years, the project extranet could be dead. This is particularly true for IT professionals in architecture, engineering and construction.
The arguments for collaborators on a project to use an extranet are that it provides a single location and a point of data maintenance - avoiding data duplication - and overcomes confusion between different departments and organisations. However, to remain useful it has to be secure, reliable, acceptably priced, future proof, stable and easy to use, which may history prove otherwise.
In addition, once an extranet is bought into, it is very difficult to disengage from for financial, legal and practical reasons.
If you decide to cease the contract with your supplier you could lose all your communications via the extranet.
Furthermore, legal requirements force wholesale duplication of all information that is exchanged across an extranet, including whiteboard conversations, instant messaging and forum conversations.
An alternative might be an electronic postal system with the data encrypted over the web and stored on your own servers.
Luckily peer-to-peer systems look set to provide complementary solutions and meet all of the core requirements that could be asked of an extranet. In this model, users directly access files saved on each other's computers. As a result, there is no one to pay for storage and no problem with stopping payment for the service.
Groove Networks produces simple software that integrates Microsoft Office and Outlook files to allow, for example, joint editing of Word or Powerpoint files. In fact, the logical conclusion of what Groove is doing could be the extinction of the project extranet.
An unusual alternative for smaller projects is Microsoft Instant Messenger. At present, this would not be a viable alternative to an extranet. However, it has the potential to develop into something highly useful if combined with Microsoft's forthcoming database-driven operating system Longhorn. With version control and audit trails, and some .net magic to blur the boundaries between applications, file systems and the internet, it is difficult to see why you would want a project-hosting service.
Despite all of this, there is no question that project extranets are useful and will continue to be used for the moment. However, the future for project collaboration could be an interesting mix of e-mail, peer-to-peer communications and instant messaging.
Alec Milton is managing director of engineering software specialist Oasys
This was first published in May 2004